Spin Control

April 22, 2007


Bright Eyes, "Cassadaga" (Saddle Creek) 3 stars
Omaha's Conor Oberst practically begs cynical listeners to scoff. Since emerging as a 14-year-old proto-emo hero in 1994, he's been the most hyped rock wunderkind since Steve Winwood, and the phrase "new Dylan" has often followed his name with no trace of irony. Neither is his fault, but we can blame him for his so-earnest-it's-smug demeanor; the failed ambition of his last releases -- the singer-songwriterly "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and the electronic "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," both issued on the same day in 2005 -- and the poetic pretensions of lines such as "I had a lengthy discussion about 'The Power of Myth' / With a postmodern author who didn't exist" and "Little soldier, little insect, you know war it has no heart / It will kill you in the sunshine or happily in the dark," two of the many that make me stumble on this, his eighth proper studio album (partly recorded at Chicago's Soma Studio).

For all of that, though, you have to hand it to Oberst, an artist so often touted as a wordsmith, for having a way with crafting memorable melodies. Now that he's ratcheted down the histrionics for what is being portrayed as his country-/roots-rock turn -- the New Dylan gives us a new "Basement Tapes" -- it's easier to tune out the more cringe-worthy moments in the political ditties ("Four Winds," "No One Would Riot for Less") and the soul-searching confessionals ("I Must Belong Somewhere" or the rehab-inspired "Cleanse Song") and simply enjoy the hooks and tasteful orchestration of pop gems such as "Make a Plan to Love Me" and "Classic Cars."

No, "Cassadaga" doesn't come close to justifying the hype. But there are still pleasures to be had, if you can only set it aside.